Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 10, 2001
For Afghan girls, a place to learn 
Beyond the reach of Taliban, U.N.-assisted schools are seeing increasing female enrollment. 

At War With Terrorr

FEYZABAD, Afghanistan - The teenage students giggled and blushed at the presence of visitors, trying out a few words of English. "Come in. Please. Thank you. How are you?"

With their faces uncloaked, the students at the Lycee Mkahfi, a girls' school in this northern Afghanistan city, were totally different creatures from the veiled phantoms who walk silently through the streets in their full-length burqas, the tentlike garments that women must wear in public in conservative Islamic culture.

In the classroom setting they seemed like any other girls, awkward and shy.

Lycee Mkahfi, founded in 1953, is the oldest of five girls' schools in Feyzabad. Such schools, once common across Afghanistan, became rare after the hard-line Taliban Islamic movement took control of 90 percent of the country, banning such activities as movies, kite-flying and virtually all education for girls.

"The Taliban doesn't want girls to go to school and receive knowledge," said Shabnam Bahar, 15, who is studying chemistry and hopes to become a doctor at the small medical university in Feyzabad, one of the last cities still controlled by the Afghan opposition.

In a rare glimpse behind the school's chipped, whitewashed walls, the students and teachers spoke of their hopes for peace and their fear of the Taliban, targeted by U.S. forces for shielding Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

The school - 18 tiny classrooms around a dusty concrete courtyard - serves 1,148 students in three shifts. Most classes have neither desks nor chairs; students sit on plastic tarpaulins on the floor. The curriculum includes math, geography, sciences and Afghan history. Students learn Arabic, Persian, Pashtun and English (which the English teacher does not speak). Religious education is confined to Koranic studies.

Boys also may attend the classes, but they must enroll in a separate school for boys when they reach fourth grade.

Many of the teachers and students at the Lycee Mkahfi are from Kabul, having fled to Feyzabad after the Taliban entered the capital in 1996.

Mariam Mursal, 15, said her family left two years ago partly because they were concerned that she was not getting an education. "We had hoped things would get better."

After the Taliban announced it would shut down schools for girls in Kabul, Mursal was taught by her mother at home. She also took private lessons from a tutor, though she was careful to tell the Taliban minders who questioned her on the street that she was going to visit a relative.

"Knowledge is an obligation for men and women," she said.

Other students and teachers said they attended underground schools in Kabul under the pretext of studying the Koran or learning a craft such as rug-weaving.

"If the children don't get an education, the country won't develop," said Shireen, 56, who lost her Kabul teaching job after the Taliban takeover and declined to give her last name because she still fears the leadership. "Now we are already one century behind the rest of the world."

She says it is not un-Islamic for girls to receive an equal education: "Half of society are women. We should also get an education and work with men. Society needs us."

The feelings they expressed may sound mild to Western ears, but in this part of the world these women are practically radical feminists.

Though there is widespread revulsion here to the Taliban's rigid interpretation of Islam, this impoverished and mountainous region is hardly a bastion of liberalism. After Afghanistan's communist government collapsed in 1992 and an Islamic state was established, social pressure forced women to return to wearing burqas or chadors when out in public.

Though women do hold some jobs at hospitals, and one is even an anchor on the local television news, there are no female shopkeepers, no female restaurant workers, no women in any job in which they are likely to come into contact with men. Most women even profess to enjoy wearing the burqas. "It is our tradition," student Bahar said.

Enrollment at the girls' schools in Feyzabad had declined considerably in recent years, largely because of the miserable economic circumstances in Afghanistan, impoverished after 23 years of civil war. Teachers were unpaid and few students bothered to enroll in the schools run by the opposition government. UNICEF officials, concerned about falling enrollment, devised a program using precious wheat from the World Food Program as an incentive to students, teachers and staff to improve their attendance.

Now students receive 27.5 pounds of wheat for each month in which they attend classes at least 22 days; teachers get 110 pounds. Female students receive the added incentive of 26 gallons of cooking oil.

Two years into the incentive program at 50 schools in opposition territory, 29,600 students are receiving benefits. Whereas only 4 percent of girls were enrolled in school before, now about 25 percent are.

"Not only has attendance gone up, but it has completely reduced absenteeism of teachers, and the student dropout rate has fallen," said Abdul Latif, a spokesman for the food program.

Though the program is creating a generation of educated girls who may demand more opportunities to use their education, local mullahs did not oppose the effort. "Even the clergy expressed their willingness to endorse the program," Latif said.

Now the school is encountering a different problem: Too many students want to attend. home page   
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